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Workplace Communication Lessons from a Crisis Negotiator

Much of the content about security is related to hard skills, such as shooting, driving, defensive tactics, and other technical skills. Those are the seemingly fun topics to talk about, and everyone wants to be an expert.

It appears the boring topics to many are soft skills. I recently heard someone in the close protection industry boldly claim that soft skills are not as essential as people make them out to be. They don’t require constant attention, you either have them or you don’t, he noted, equating soft skills to simply something that any good person would have. While some people disagreed, many others agreed with him.

Those technical skills are important, and younger professionals seem to value them highly. But the older officers, security professionals, and tacticians are wise to the importance of a softer approach.

I define technical skills—also known as hard skills—as something you do. In comparison, soft skills are about how you do something. These soft skills can include communication, critical thinking, empathy, creativity, leadership, and many others.

As a former crisis and hostage negotiator, I can attest that soft skills are just as perishable as hard skills. Spending time on the range is important if you want to keep your shooting scores high. Similarly, spending time on the phone is important to keep your communication skills high. Negotiators often train regularly, knowing that the skill is easily diminished and constant practice is important.

Active Listening

Communication is more than just hearing words or listening to another person, whether face to face or over the phone. True communication is interactive, exchanging ideas and information. It requires voluntary participation and encourages growth and the transfer of information. A person who doesn’t participate is merely present while others are attempting to communicate.

Talking is only one part of communicating. You must also understand what the other person is saying, which requires more than just hearing the words. So, let’s consider what poor communication can look like and the impacts.

We all have that one friend who never listens to anything you are saying and cuts you off while you’re speaking. If you’re anything like me, this scenario is extremely annoying since that behavior indicates that the person either apparently lacks polite communication skills or is unwilling to hear what you have to say.

Another person lacking communication skills is the person simply waiting for their time to talk, largely focused on what he or she has to say next. There is a strong possibility that this person is not really listening to what others are saying, and communication is breaking down.

Instead, effective communication involves active listening. This process allows the listener to actively participate in the conversation, validate the other person, and retain the information conveyed to them.

Caren Olsten, a psychology life coach who often writes for Psychology Today, suggests using active listening skills to really listen and do more than just wait to talk. Active listening skills are a sure way to participate in communication. 

To improve your active listening, remember the acronym MORE PIES.

M. Minimal encouragers—such as “uh huh,” “hmmm,” “I see,” or “okay”—are supportive noises that let the other person know you are engaged with them.

O. Open-ended questions seek more than simple “yes” or “no” answers and are intended to get someone talking.

R. Reflecting or mirroring is when a person repeats back the last few words that the other person said. It might feel like parroting, but in fact it allows a listener to communicate to the storyteller that he or she was heard.

E. Emotional labeling is an extremely effective form of communication. The listener will identify a person’s emotion in a response to what the person said. For example, “You sound angry/frustrated/upset/betrayed.”

This tactic is one of my favorites, and I would argue it is one of the most important. Everyone experiences emotions, but sometimes people do not get to express them or feel that the emotions are recognized by others. The brilliance of emotional labeling is if you incorrectly label an emotion based off of what was said, the other person will correct you. He or she will either tell you about the reason for his or her emotion or correct you and also likely explain why they are feeling that way.

P. Paraphrasing (restating the words of the person talking into your own words) is similar to reflecting. Paraphrasing, also known as looping, demonstrates to the speaker that you were listening when you repeat back parts of their statements.

I. “I” statements are messages to the person you’re communicating with, letting them know you’re listening but also conveying your own emotions. For greater effectiveness, it can go beyond the emotional—in tense situations, it can even guide the people in the conversation. While “I feel frustrated when you scream” conveys emotion to the other person, “I feel frustrated when you scream, and I can’t focus on what you want me to know” articulates the investment that the listener has in the conversation. This helps build rapport by showing the other person you deeply want to communicate with them. A word of caution: this is an extremely difficult active listening skill and takes lots of practice.

E. Effective pauses are done immediately before or after saying something meaningful, allowing the person you are communicating with a chance to think about what was said and to focus. It also offers both people in the conversation a chance to slow down and avoid rushing to speak over the other person.

S. Summarizing what the other person said is an active listening skill that demonstrated you have been listening.

But the active listening process is just the beginning of the entire communication process. Effective communication will also involve other soft skills, such as showing empathy and building rapport. Together, these ultimately lead to the ability to influence the other person.

A Cautionary Note on Communication

To increase the chances of influencing another, it helps to know what not to do when communicating with someone.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Making promises that cannot be kept breaks down communication and creates distrust. If a manager breaks a promise, he or she will be seen as untrustworthy and incompetent. Subordinates will not want to work for this manager and will limit the information they share. It can easily spiral out of control.

If a subordinate doesn’t keep a promise, then he or she will also likely be seen as untrustworthy. This negative relationship could lead to the employee being targeted by managers in the future as someone they want to create difficulties for or give unpleasant tasks to.

Don’t communicate in any form when you’re angry. Communicating with the wrong tone will send the wrong message, even if you’re not angry at the audience. A common example is email correspondence. Don’t send emails when angry; you can’t get them back once they are sent.

Going out of your way to be overly polite can be beneficial, especially via written communication like email or text, where tone is hard to read. It’s not uncommon for tones to be misconstrued as angry or insubordinate.

For example, I was assigned a trainee for his third and final phase of police training. He was a former U.S. Marine, well-educated, extremely proficient with technology, and had solid writing and speaking skills. On his second day of training, my supervisor informed me that a commander was looking to discipline my trainee for insubordination or potentially terminate him for rudeness to another city employee. The damning evidence was an email thread that was presented to me unofficially.

What I read was an exchange between my trainee and a court secretary. The secretary initially asked about a citation, and my trainee promptly sent an email back, within a day, answering the question. The secretary followed up with another email asking a different question, and again my trainee answered promptly, within another day. The court secretary then emailed the commander a copy of the email thread and complained of rudeness.

The trainee didn’t provide any pleasantries in the email—just an immediate and accurate response to the inquiries. He did not issue any insults or innuendos, nor did he write anything other than a response to what was asked. He also answered all the questions that were asked of him. The complaint was a response to the trainee’s bluntness, which the reader took as rudeness or an insult, which was likely never the intention. If the trainee had made some minor pleasantries in his email to show extra politeness, the entire situation would have been avoided.

But what about instances where you are angry but still need to send an email? If a person can imagine rudeness, anger, or an insult where none was intended, imagine how much worse it can be when serious anger is detected. You need to calm down first.

Try screaming out your anger—in a private place, obviously. Scream therapy has been around for decades and while technically not supported by any formal studies, it gives a chance to release pent-up emotions.

Hostage negotiators commonly allow the subject on the phone to scream at them. We did this for two reasons. First, if they were yelling at us, they wouldn’t be taking out their anger on a victim. Second, negotiators have long observed that when people scream it out, the extreme anger (and screaming) can only be sustained for so long. After he or she was done screaming, the hostage-taker was often calmer and expressed more rationale in the conversation.

Building Influence

Now that it’s obvious that communication is key in scenarios involving hostage negotiations and the public sector, let’s consider how it’s useful for security for private organizations.

Communication goes beyond talking with suspicious people and an organization’s personnel. Security leaders will want to communicate across the organization, including to the highest levels of management and to organizational stakeholders. They can use their knowledge of active listening skills, empathy, and rapport building for effective communication in person or via email. 

Security personnel want to primarily communicate that they are trustworthy and an integral part of the organization’s success. The department wants to share in the common goal of the organization and is an essential component within the larger whole—it does not want to be seen as a “necessary evil.” Security leaders need to convey that effective security procedures support the organization, protect employees and clients, and make personnel feel safer, knowing that happier and more relaxed employees are more effective for the organization. Being an active participant in the organization on a regular basis shows the company and other stakeholders that the security team should be taken seriously, but more importantly the security team is building rapport and working on its ability to influence all the time.

Another message the security team needs to communicate is about what it needs for successful operations—for example, physical access components, electronic or computer systems, or other equipment needs.

Negotiators’ success has everything to do with the ability to communicate and convey feelings in a polite, honest, and empathetic manner. This skill set is not reserved for crisis situations. It should be used everywhere—the boardroom, finance office, emails, and an every collaboration with another department. We’ve all heard the saying, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” and this is how you make the honey. Clear and effective communication helps outside of crisis scenarios and will have immense value in a security professional’s day-to-day roles, whether in the private or public sectors.  

Consider an example from my law enforcement career. In every department I have worked in, the police will often take on certain security functions, including protection of the city facilities, close protection operations with city council or other high-ranking officials, or a specialized role in police services such as airport police, capitol police, or railway police. Those roles have their own unique issues when it comes to physical security, criminal investigation, crime deterrence, and protection. Those security positions require officers to be armed, proficient with firearms, and possess an understanding of use of force escalation.

For a time, my organization was outfitted with firearms that were all more than 20 years old. When purchasing newer models became an option, I suggested that the models be equipped with the ability to attach certain sighting systems on them. My reasoning was that while there is no requirement for attachable pistol optics, this was an increasing trend for other departments and it could become a requirement in the future. If we did not purchase firearms with these options, then the department would need to repurchase all firearms if it became a requirement down the road. If we instead bought capable and ready firearms upfront, then we would not have to expend the funds twice over.

I presented the case to management, requesting the funding to purchase red dot sighting systems, as well as funding for ammunition and training with the new equipment. I was able to use data from law enforcement agencies across the United States showing increased accuracy rates in qualification scores as well as officer-involved shootings. Additionally, I presented data showing the number of citizen interactions that occur daily and potential liability issues by not having it as an option. Lastly, I presented a case for improved accuracy amongst aging officers or those with less than perfect eyesight. The data supported the change to the red dot sighting system.

Because of the rapport I had built with management throughout my career, supported by my active listening and communication skills, I gained support for my case, got assistance from the finance department to allocate funds, and began planning to integrate the new system.

Communication is constant. A lot is communicated between two people—which words are said, what isn’t said, the tone, the body language, and more. A person can demonstrate his or her esteem to another by showing enthusiasm and interest.

Overall, a security professional that utilizes communication at every level—whether engaging with corporate officers, subordinates, supervisors, or suspects—will increase what information they glean and increase his or her awareness of every situation. Effective communication ultimately benefits a security leader, as he or she will be included more in corporate decision-making discussions and increasing the organization’s sense of trust in the department. 


Kevin Jones, CPP, has spent approximately 18 years working in law enforcement and more than a decade as a crisis and hostage negotiator. He was also a firearms instructor, drug recognition expert, field training officer, investigator, and supervisor. Jones regularly conducts threat assessments and intelligence reports, and is passionate about crisis intervention, de-escalation, and early intervention. He has experienced firsthand the results of active shooter and workplace violence incidents and strives to help prevent them, including developing training curriculum from personal experiences. He is currently working on attaining a master’s degree in strategic security.